Rethinking publicness: Making public space in an “excellent global city” and the rhetoric and reality of people-orientedness

Central to the debates on the demise and revival of public space is the concept of publicness, which is often used to untangle the most desirable qualities a public space should embody in a normative and prescriptive manner. This paper argues for the de-normalisation of publicness and approaches publicness as a status of the space being public in a particular way in a given context, rather than an abstract and normative ideal that is universally applicable. To demonstrate the multiple possible layers of publicness, the paper uses the regeneration of Huangpu River waterfront public space in Shanghai as a case study. By examining the transformation of the waterfront in the past two decades and focusing on the recent public space connection project, the paper showcases the different ways the design and development of public space are intertwined with the people- oriented ideal, promoted as the key to Shanghai’s ambitious vision to become an «excellent global city». Based on the analysis of the rhetoric and reality of the people-orientedness of the waterfront public space development in Shanghai, the paper summarises three different layers of publicness, namely localised publicness, procedural publicness, and symbolic publicness, that concern not only the material quality but also the processes of delivering and discursively constructing public space. This discussion of the multiple possible faces of publicness will serve as a starting point to further investigate how to approach publicness beyond the confinement of spatial boundaries as embedded in the broader complex power dynamics of contemporary cities.